Dating can be a complicated and perilous journey at the best of times, but as an Asian woman the experience is magnified. My dating life has involved a combination of secrecy, well-crafted lies and culture clash.
I still remember the frank discussion I had with a partner about the impossibility of ever meeting their parents. Unlike my partner - I wasn’t Muslim, I wasn’t Bengali, and we didn’t have plans to get married. If their parents found out, they could be disowned. So we kept our social media privacy settings locked down, never spoke on the phone when they visited home and steered clear of their suburb.
I always date in secret, whether the person is a man, a woman or neither. Being queer is just another layer of secrecy to add to my dating life, along with hiding from my parents where I am, who I’m seeing and my relationship status.
Living in Australia and Indonesia, I have also exclusively dated outside my ethnic background and navigated differences in culture, religion, class and family expectations. None of it was easy. Yet most interracial relationships are thought of as a white person dating a person of colour - as if there are no differences or diversities between communities of colour. It’s extremely rare for media portrayals to grapple with culture clash between people of colour, but in my experience the differences couldn’t be more stark.
Something as basic as what language to communicate in sparked a vehement argument with a former partner, because he preferred English but I wanted to practise my Indonesian. I felt left out when I heard him speaking to others with an intimacy in Indonesian, that he never used with me.
There are steep learning curves built into interracial dating, and educating yourself and appreciating your partner’s culture is vital to building a relationship.
We also had to confront Indonesian cultural taboos around sex before marriage. I had mostly ignored these ideas growing up in a mixed-race Chinese-Indonesian Australian family in the west, but he had been instilled with a real sense of fear and anxiety around sex. Conversely, I experienced intense discomfort around his house servants. While I snuck into the kitchen to wash my own dishes, my partner reluctantly learned how to fold clothes under my strict directions from how to flatten clothes to save space and the trick to tucking in sleeves. I was gobsmacked that a 24-year-old adult had never had to fold clothes before.
Many of these things are informed by culture, education and class, and necessitate flexibility and empathy. There are steep learning curves built into interracial dating, and educating yourself and appreciating your partner’s culture is vital to building a relationship.
This is why portrayals of interracial relationships as exclusively between a white person and a person of colour erases so much. Classics like Othello and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, along with modern-day comedies like The Big Sick and The Mindy Project all revolve around predominantly white partners. The necessity for a white counterpart in the context of interracial dating centres whiteness, and sets these relationships against the backdrop of white learning. In these stories the audience plays the role of the white anthropologist, navigating the obstacle of the exotic Other and their culture. Portraying people of colour through this lens does a disservice to our identities and experiences. We can and do exist without the intellectual inquiry of the white explorer and coloniser.
Most interracial relationships are thought of as a white person dating a person of colour - as if there are no differences or diversities between communities of colour.
Perhaps most interracial relationships are constructed this way because white culture is seen as neutral, even if it has just as many confusing and unspoken rules as any other. Although there might have been more cultural understanding about strictness or communitarian values in Asian cultures, I found dating people of other Asian backgrounds also demanded open-minded dialogues about culture.
Still, the xenophobia within communities of colour continues to be extremely toxic towards young people like myself who have grown up in a hugely diverse country, and don’t hold the same religious views as our parents.
One partner disclosed to me his Nepali Hindu family’s expectation that he even marry someone from the correct ethnic caste, unless the person was white (that’s still seen as ‘marrying up’). This is why many of us are forced to date in secret, for fear of our parents’ patriarchal, casteist, racist or homophobic values, which perpetuate oppressive and violent beliefs onto future generations.
I don’t regret keeping my partners a secret from my family. I have protected them from the rigorous interrogation, slut-shaming or homophobia they would have been subjected to. Including your pre-marital partners in family life is a western cultural practice and understanding its consequences in ethnic families requires comprehension of the balancing act most second or third-generation migrants perform as they move through two or more conflicting cultures. Thankfully, most of my partners have been in the same situation or on board with being a secret, but this is not a sustainable option into the future.
As a second-generation immigrant, I am not as afraid to speak out against injustice, demand change or reject traditions I don’t believe in. Most of all, I’m not afraid of love. None of us should be.
Bridget Harilaou is a freelance writer. You can follow Bridget on Twitter at @FightLoudly.